During the construction of the park, dirt from the excavation of Sleeping Beauty Castle's moat was piled in an area between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. When the park opened, the area, dubbed Holiday Hill (and later Lookout Mountain), was improved with benches and pathways to encourage its use as a picnic area. After the opening of the Disneyland Skyway in 1956, Walt Disney conceived the idea of a toboggan ride on the mountain with real snow but the logistics caused vehement objections by Disneyland construction chief Joe Fowler. In this period, the hill began to be known as Snow Hill. By now, instead of picnicking, the hill had come to be used primarily as a nighttime lovers' lane, much to Disney's dismay. New wild mouse-style roller coasters got the attention of Disneyland executives who began to consider applying this emerging technology to the creation of a toboggan-themed coaster ride on an artificial mountain at the site.
The structure was also intended to act as a decorative overlay to camouflage the central pylon of the Skyway. Use of the Matterhorn, both in style and name, grew from Disney's extended vacation in Switzerland while filming Third Man on the Mountain. In a moment of inspiration, impressed by the beauty of the real Matterhorn, Walt grabbed a postcard of the mountain from a souvenir stand and sent it back to Imagineer (architect) Vic Greene with the message, “Vic. Build This. Walt.” This resulted in the merger of the toboggan ride concept with the thoughts of a bobsled coaster ride that would run around and through the structure. The peak was first shown in a conceptual drawing that was once on display at The Disney Gallery.
The view to the northwest shows a corner of the now-defunct Junior Autopia, which would be replaced by both the Matterhorn and the Submarine Voyage attraction the following year. One of three major new Tomorrowland attractions to open that year, the Matterhorn debuted on June 14, 1959. Built by coaster builder Arrow Development and WED Imagineering, it was the first tubular steel roller coaster in the world. It consisted of a wood and steel infrastructure surrounded by man-made rock.
Trees could be seen on its sides; by making the trees at higher altitudes smaller, the Imagineers used forced perspective to augment the mountain's height. Waterfalls cascaded down its sides and frequently sprayed riders. Inside was a large, open space through which the bobsleds traveled. The peak had numerous holes in its exterior through which the bobsleds exited and re-entered, though the space within was not elaborately themed, with the infrastructure being only minimally disguised as rock. The Skyway passed through the center of the mountain via a pair of holes on the Fantasyland and Tomorrowland sides. Skyway riders could see down into the Matterhorn's interior as they glided through.
In the early 1970s, the ride was officially made a part of Fantasyland, but this was merely a prelude to far more significant changes. In 1978, the Matterhorn received a major refurbishment. Most notably, the hollow interior space was broken up into a number of small, icy caves and tunnels with far more convincing theming. Some holes in the mountain's skin were filled in as well, including the two large openings at the top of the lift hill that had allowed guests to briefly glimpse the entire southern part of the park.
Another major addition was an abominable snowman, who had taken up residence in the mountain and was affectionately named "Harold" by the Imagineers. The creature exists as three similar Audio-Animatronic figures that roar at the bobsledders; the first is visible from both tracks at the point where they divide to take separate paths, while the other two are visible only from their respective tracks. Each track also features a pair of red eyes that glow in the dark shortly after the lift hill while its roar is heard. These roars can be heard from ground level as well, even over the recorded howling of the Alpine wind. The bobsleds themselves were also changed from the original flat, luge-like, multi-colored two-seaters to rounder, white cars decorated with orange and red stripes. The bobsleds also changed from a single car to two cars connected to one another to form a "train".
The Skyway continued to travel through the mountain, but its passageway was now enclosed in similarly themed ice caves. Following the closure of the Skyway in 1994, the cavernous holes through which the Skyway buckets had traveled were partially filled in. The holes in the Tomorrowland face remained mostly intact, and a grotto filled with glimmering crystals was installed nearby. An abandoned crate labeled "Wells Expedition" was also added as a tribute to Frank Wells, who had died earlier that year. The bluish glow of the crystals could be easily seen from the ground at night. With the exception of the aforementioned filling of certain holes, the actual external structure of the mountain remained largely unchanged from its original construction.
The Matterhorn temporarily closed on January 9, 2012, for a 6-month refurbishment. The mountain was renovated by redoing the paint job throughout the outside of the mountain and some repairs on the inside. The vehicles were also changed to single seaters instead of the lap sitting, with three individual seats in each bobsled with two cars linked together for a total of six guests, similar to the trains used on Florida's version of Space Mountain. The new bobsleds are painted red, blue, and green. The Matterhorn reopened on June 15, 2012.
Part of the rehab included giving the entire mountain exterior a face lift. For only the second time ever, the first being when the attraction was originally built, scaffolding was erected all the way from the base of the mountain to the top for the rehab. The mountain had essentially been painted over and over again through the years, resulting in a mostly white, snow-covered Matterhorn mountain, but in 2012, the entire mountain was made bare again and carefully painted to be more realistic to what the actual Matterhorn looks like. This meant placing more snow on the northern side and less snow on the southern side of the mountain. For the first time since the Matterhorn's early days, the base of the mountain was mostly snowless.
The "snow" on the mountain's surface in the past was merely white paint, but for the refurbished ride, glass beads were mixed into the paint so that the snow actually reflects sunlight like actual snow does. Jim Crouch, Walt Disney Imagineer, served as field art director over the rehab project. The mountain climbers that used to climb the Matterhorn in the past on any given day also returned after the rehab.
The Matterhorn closed for a five month refurbishment on January 5, 2015, in order to prepare for the 60th anniversary of the park. The attraction reopened on May 22, 2015, with new special effects and updated animatronics. On the lift hills, a projected image of the Abominable Snowman is now visible through a sheet of ice. A newer animatronic version of the Snowman appears at the top, and improved sound effects help create the illusion that it is in pursuit as the train descends down the mountain.1956: Walt Disney conceives an idea for a toboggan style roller coaster inside of a mountain.
1958: Construction begins.
June 14, 1959: The Matterhorn Bobsleds open as the first steel roller coaster in the world. It opened alongside the Disneyland Monorail and Submarine Voyage as part of an expansion to Tomorrowland.
Early 1970s: The Matterhorn Bobsleds is officially made part of Fantasyland.
1978: The Matterhorn receives a refurbishment in which Imagineers made the smaller caves and tunnels with more theming. The ride also received new trains and the biggest addition, the Abominable Snowman which roars at riders twice.
1994: When the Skyway closed that year, the holes the Skyway went through were partially filled in the mountain. Another addition was the glimmering crystals and Wells Expedition crate at the beginning of the ride.
January 9, 2012: The Matterhorn closes for a 6-month refurbishment which would include a new outside fixture of the mountain and new trains with different restraints.
June 15, 2012: The Matterhorn Bobsleds reopen.
January 5, 2015: The Matterhorn closes for another refurbishment which would include a projected image of the Abominable Snowman at the top of the lift hill and an updated animatronic of the Abominable Snowman.
May 22, 2015: The Matterhorn Bobsleds reopens as part of Disneyland Resort's 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebration.
2017: FastPass is added to the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
The ride consists of two separate tracks that run roughly parallel to each other for much of the ride, intertwining and eventually deviating from each other at the loading areas. They are the Fantasyland track and Tomorrowland track, named for the side of the mountain their associated loading line begins in. The vehicles originally held up to four passengers each, seated single-file. After the 1978 upgrade, the individual vehicles were joined into pairs with lap seating increasing the capacity per train to eight. In 2012, the cars were replaced with new vehicles as part of the six month ride closure, and it currently features two cars paired together with three single-file seats per car. The safety restraints consist of a car seatbelt. There are hand grips inside the cars, but there are no longer hand grips on the outside of the bobsled.
There is one lift hill on each track. Bobsleds ascend parallel to each other at the start of the ride, climbing past walls featuring snow-like special effects. The top of this lift hill constitutes the highest point of the ride itself, though the mountain continues upward for another couple of stories. The rest of the ride is a mostly unpowered coast through the Matterhorn's many caverns and passageways.
The splash-down pools at the end of each track serve dual purposes. They not only cool off the braking pads mounted on the underside of the bobsleds, but the impact into the water itself acts as a braking mechanism. Because of their constant exposure to water, the fiberglass bodies are regularly waxed.
For many years, a basketball half-court existed inside the structure above the coaster, near the top of the mountain, where the mountain climbers could play between climbs. As internal access to the mountain was locked for safety reasons, the court was accessible only to the climbers. The court was relocated slightly during the installation of the Tinkerbell flight equipment prior to the 50th anniversary celebration; the hoop and playing area remain intact. There is a cast member break room inside the mountain at the base. The court is said to still be there today by many cast members and the mountain's climbers.
At the end of the attraction, guests hear the now-famous "Remain seated please; Permanecer sentados por favor" safety announcement; it is one of many recordings by the former "Voice of Disneyland," Jack Wagner. The recording was changed in 2005 to say "Remain seated with your seatbelt fastened; Permanecer sentados por favor." The changed English dialogue is still Jack Wagner, as it was borrowed from the attraction's breakdown announcement. This recording also introduces the Tomorrowland segment of the Remember... Dreams Come True fireworks show. The safety announcement was featured on the title track of the 1995 No Doubt album Tragic Kingdom, and the line was spoken by Barbie in the film Toy Story 2. The ride's safety spiel is
"For your safety, remain seated with your seat belts fastened, keeping your hands, arms, feet, and legs inside the bobsled. And be sure to watch your children. Auf Wiedersehen!"
Another variant goes,
"For your safety, remain seated with your seat belt fastened, keeping your hands, arms, feet, and legs inside the bobsled. And please, watch your kids. Thank you!"
After this saying, riders enter the cavern and climb the lift hill, the shadow of the abominable snowman peering onto guests. Once it has disengaged from the chain, riders pass through a dark tunnel. The glowing red eyes of the Abominable Snowman appear, accentuated by his roar, and the trains emerge into a cavern filled with ruined bobsleds and sleighs. A crate with "Wells Expedition" stamped on it can also be seen. Both tracks take a left hand turn, then split off before they can crash into the first anamatronic. The cars swirl around the mountain, dipping under tunnels and by the waterfalls. Each track then passes another anamatronic of the Snowman. Soon after the second encounter riders plunge into the alpine lake and return to the station. No on-ride picture is available for this ride.
Disneyland in California is the only Disney theme park with a Matterhorn Bobsled ride. The tracks of Space Mountain at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom were based on the designs of the Matterhorn but not identical to them. The Matterhorn's newer bobsleds, added in 1978, were based on the other ride's rockets, which had debuted in 1975. When Space Mountain was built at Disneyland, it was a completely new design with a single track and vehicles that seated riders side by side rather than behind one another.
Disney's Animal Kingdom contains a roller coaster with a similar theme: Expedition Everest. It is a railway adventure to the top of an abstract version of the Himalayan mountain where riders encounter another fictional mountain beast, the Yeti.
The video game Epic Mickey has its own version of the Matterhorn named Mickeyjunk Mountain, where old Mickey memorabilia goes when it is forgotten.
The music video for Randy Newman's song "I Love L.A." shows the mountain when he sings, "look at that mountain".
The abominable snowman from the attraction appears in the 2013 Mickey Mouse short "Yodelberg", where Mickey encounters the creature while climbing a mountain to see Minnie. The bobsled ride vehicles from the attraction litter the entrance of the beast's ice cavern home.
In the 1980s, the Matterhorn Ski Club (ride operators led by Chuck Abbott) began buying seeing eye dogs from Guide Dogs of the Desert with the unclaimed coin change and knives that fell out of pockets during the ride. This soon expanded to collecting cans from every employee break area. At one time, the bottom floor of the Matterhorn was filled with bags of aluminum cans. The recipients of the dogs were treated like royalty whenever they visited the park.
On June 29, 2011, Walt Disney Pictures announced an adventure movie inspired by the Matterhorn attraction with Jason Dean Hall attached to write the script. Justin Springer is producing the project, which originally had a working title as The Hill, and is now referred to as Untitled Explorers Project. The idea behind the project is to do a thrilling, fast-paced movie centering on five young adventure seekers who, for mysterious reasons, are called to the top of the mountain and encounter a Yeti on the journey down.